REGION: Rural nationalism and chauvinism

When speaking of any society, it is necessary to ask how far into the grassroots the reach of chauvinistic, exclusionary ultra-nationalism stretches. This is an important question, because it is the people at the mass level who define the political direction of any country. If ultra-nationalist populism has the masses in its grip, it constricts the manoeuvring ability of the politicians who might know better, and allows the demagogue to take politics to the ultra-left or ultra-right.

While 'soft' nationalism, in itself, is a fine thing, providing for a comforting – secular, cultural – identity, it can become dangerous if radicalised and used by the capital-based establishment to entrench itself against competing forces within a nation state. Such a situation promotes the centralisation of the state apparatus, and fosters a military mindset. It is at this point that histories and textbooks are rewritten to serve the interests of the central elite establishment – and an ultra-nationalism is born that, in turn, waters the soil of chauvinism. Neighbouring countries as well as those farther afield are seen with a suspicion that is largely undeserved, and a conspiracy-seeking sensibility invades our consciousness.

Within Southasia, the national establishment in each country manipulates the masses, both directly and subtly, to support forms of ultra-nationalism that ultimately help to keep them in power. This strategy continues to be used even as ultra-nationalism often goes against the interests of the people who would be supported by a non-chauvinist, cultural nationalism, which could actually help to promote good-neighbourliness. What the people at large, and especially those who live in Southasia's 'arc of poverty' – from Khulna to Bihar and from the Nepal Tarai to Sindh – need is peace, trade, open borders and visa-less travel. What the capital-based elites desire are closed or regulated borders, barbed wire and expenditure on armed forces, if not nuclear weaponry. In their individual ultra-nationalism, the capital elites of Southasia are blood brothers, and together they make our region the most militarised in the world.

One would think that the masses would have so little to gain from issues that agitate the capital-based establishment classes that ultra-nationalism would have little chance in the rural sphere. One would think that the villager in Sindh or deep inside Andhra Pradesh would have a more flexible attitude towards, say, the question of Kashmir. But this is not the case. True, on the whole the average villager does not spend time thinking about grave issues of national security. Even so, at the level of articulation, ultra-nationalism appears to have sunk roots there too.

Today, the history textbooks, the state propaganda machinery as well as the state-supported and private media in each country promote the ultra-nationalist agenda, reaching for the lowest common denominator of discourse. The intelligentsia as a whole tends to be cowed down by the ultra-nationalist demagogues, and does not provide the necessary independence of thought that would help the journalist or politician. The English-speaking classes in the various metropolitan hubs of Southasia provide themselves the leeway to make small, unobtrusive noises against ultra-nationalism. But this is typically more to keep one's own conscience clear than promoting regional camaraderie against the ultra-nationalist agenda of the ultra left and right.

It is due to this collusion between the demagogue and the intelligentsia that so many matters of great import for the economy of Southasia lose support– issues that would directly and indirectly support the poorest. This collusion keeps the 'vernacular intelligentsia' stuck in an ultra-nationalist time-warp, whether it is Urdu, Hindi, Bangla, Sinhala or Nepali. Without public intellectuals writing in the vernacular, there is little hope of doing the great deeds needed to make Southasia a more cooperative and peaceful place.

Today, the challenge of ultra-nationalism, and the control of the nationalist discourse by the capital elite, can be perceived strikingly in the growing demand in Kathmandu and New Delhi for the closure or regulation of the historically mandated open border between Nepal and India. The two countries – one of them of overwhelmingly larger in size and power – have each been able to maintain their sovereign spaces even when the border is open and unregulated. More importantly, this border is of vital importance to the peoples of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, Darjeeling and Uttaranchal, as to the people of the Nepali hill and plain. Not only does this border allow for the age-old interaction of demographically similar communities across the border to flourish, it also provides a lifeline for Nepal's poorest millions, who utilise the open border to access job opportunities as migrants in India.

The voice of the so-called intelligentsia in Kathmandu and the national-security and intelligence community in New Delhi is beginning to converge on the need to restrict and regulate the only border in this region that provides a formula for the future of Southasia's inter-state relationships. Rather than stand up for closure or regulation of the border, the Kathmandu intellectuals (and others) need to understand that an open border is a safety valve – in this case, for the poorest Nepali citizens. On the other side of the coin, the proponents of the capital-centric national-security state, who reside in New Delhi more than elsewhere, need to look beyond their narrow perspective of the open Nepali border as the 'soft underbelly' of India. It is time for those, on both sides, who would presume to speak for these people to shed this form of extremism, and make do with simple, non-chauvinistic, cultural nationalism.

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Himal Southasian